A Bus Driver in Southern China Dies of Bird Flu. Could the Deadly Virus Strike Again?
News that a bus driver from the southern Chinese city of Shenzhen died of the H5N1 bird flu virus on Dec. 31 was greeted with a shrug in the nation that serves as the breeding ground for some of the world’s nastiest viruses. The death of a 39-year-old bus driver surnamed Chen on Saturday was the first reported human death from bird flu in 18 months. The World Health Organization says that China has reported 27 avian influenza fatalities since 2003, with around 40 infected in total—a sign of the virus’s high mortality rate. Worldwide, the virus, which is usually transmitted through direct handling of infected birds as opposed to human-to-human contact, has killed more than 330 people.
The death struck a nerve in Hong Kong, the international metropolis that is just across the border from the boomtown of Shenzhen and that has seen seven people die from bird flu in recent years. The former British colony has now reverted to Chinese rule but enjoys a separate political system and maintains strict health standards. In late December, Hong Kong officials reported that a pair of dead birds found in the territory had tested positive for H5N1. In addition, a chicken at a local market was also found to carry the virus and since then tens of thousands of poultry have been exterminated in Hong Kong. The territory’s scientists have been on the forefront of efforts to identify new virus strains that proliferate in China, particularly in the country’s southern Guangdong province bordering Hong Kong.
Bird flu has dominated the front pages of Hong Kong newspapers, with the respected South China Morning Post on Jan. 2 reporting critically on China’s disease monitoring standards, quoting University of Hong Kong microbiologist Guan Yi: “For more than a decade, the virus was always found in birds in Hong Kong before any human fell ill. The situation is opposite on the mainland. Their approach seems to be to wait for someone to get sick and then guess where the virus came from. It’s unreasonable.”
Predictably, coverage in the mainland’s state-controlled press was less critical, focusing instead on the heroic efforts of provincial health officials in Guangdong, where Shenzhen is located, to identify the virus. On December 22, Xinhua, China’s state-run news service, did mention the infected birds found in Hong Kong but noted that “no reports of a bird flu outbreak have been filed on the mainland so far.” Yet just 10 days before, Xinhua had reported that “China’s Ministry of Agriculture on Monday confirmed an outbreak of bird flu at a village in Lhasa, Tibet Autonomous Region.”